Richmond Free Press and New Kent Charles City Chronicle: General Assembly Update #4

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry.  Yet many communities in the commonwealth do not have enough places to purchase healthy, affordable food as a wide variety of factors have led supermarkets to disinvest from lower-income areas across the commonwealth, creating a public health crisis. 

As reported in 2015 by The Food Trust and the American Heart Association, over 1.7 million Virginians—including 480,000 children—live in low income areas with limited supermarket access.  Lower income levels in these communities make it even more challenging for families to travel to where supermarkets are concentrated, especially when public transit is not accessible or convenient.  This problem plagues urban and rural localities of all sizes.  From Hampton, Richmond, Lynchburg, and Martinsville, to large parts of southern and southwestern Virginia, residents must travel long distances to purchase the foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet.

Virginians in low-income and low-access communities suffer from disproportionately high rates of diet-related diseases including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.  They are also cut off from the quality jobs and economic revitalization that local grocery stores provide.  All Virginians are impacted directly or indirectly in the form of decreased workforce productivity and higher healthcare costs.

A diverse coalition of stakeholders including, health, business, local government and child advocate organizations, are working to create the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund.  Governor McAuliffe’s proposed 2018-2020 biennium budget included $7.5 million for the creation of this fund within the Department of Housing and Community Development.  Bi-partisan legislation has also been introduced to establish the framework for the program including HB 69 from Delegate Delores McQuinn, HB 85 from Delegate Dickie Bell, and SB 37 from Senators Bill Stanley and Roslyn Dance.  I am proud to co-sponsor these bills. 

The Virginia Grocery Investment Fund will create a private-public partnership leveraging state dollars with private money that will provide one-time low interest loans or small grants to projects that provide new jobs and improved access to nutritious food through new grocery stores, renovation of older stores in underserved communities, or innovative food retail projects. There is confirmed interest for projects in at least 18 localities from both new and existing businesses in accessing low-interest loans and grants to expand and create new healthy food retail through the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund.

The program has widespread support.  SB 37 passed the Senate last week 36-4.  The House bills await action in the Appropriations Committee.